A few years ago, noted theatre director Sunil Shanbag took his production, Words Have Been Uttered, to Bengaluru. It was based on a series of texts, poems, excerpts from a memoir, a film script, all themed on “resistance”. While the performance was a powerful one, Shanbag realised the strength of the production lay in the curation of these diverse texts. The team offered a copy of the texts for ₹20, the cost of a photocopy.
In another instance, Abhishek Majumdar’s collection of plays was made available as a book during a performance of his award-winning play, Kaumudi, at Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru. During the pandemic, Majumdar wrote a play, Salt, and simply released it online, free to be read and used.
What if these stray acts could become part of a platform to make plays available online to everyone free of charge? This is what the Bhasha Centre for Performing Arts, a Bengaluru-based theatre organisation that works on building resources for theatre makers, is hoping to achieve with The Drama Library (TDL). Launched last month, the library now has 209 plays, with over 100 in English, followed by those in Hindi and Marathi.
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Vivek Madan, director of the Bhasha Centre, says the library is the outcome of conversations over the years. “If I decide to make a play today, the first thing I will do is reach out to people I know or have worked with, in search of a script. There is so much more work out there which I may never reach otherwise,” he says. “The library is an answer to both those needs: to find something that you are looking for and to be surprised by work you didn’t know existed.” Playwrights do, however, need to indemnify TDL against copyright claims.
The execution came with its own challenges—from soliciting contributions of texts to a tech company failing to deliver. TDL was launched formally with the reading of a play by Neel Chaudhari; this will be a monthly affair. In fact, TDL Readings hosted its second reading on 30 July (4-6pm), with playwright Deepika Arwind. She read from The Playwright Is Dead, a play about a writer in search of real women on stage. The playwright introduced the play; followed by an informal participatory reading, and a Q&A session the next day.
Talking about the TDL collection, librarian Phalguni Vittal Rao says: “We started by reaching out to playwrights. Experience was not a criteria; we were as open to emerging young writers as published ones. In Order Of Appearance: A Compendium Of Indian Playwrights in English by Abhijit Sengupta was a great resource.”
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Though TDL did not put out an open call for plays, it has received as many as 25 submissions since the launch. “We always wanted to be a library with all Indian languages and are trying to expand. We have some Assamese plays from the 1960s and 1970s coming next and a Bengali play, which was published in a magazine. We are also trying to reach out to access collections from organisations and institutions like Thespo and the National Centre for the Performing Arts,” says Rao.
I took some time to explore the virtual library on my own. The website is not optimised for the mobile, it’s better to read the plays on a laptop or a desktop. However, the plays are free to read and require no sign-in as of now. This might change in a few months.
You can search by play or playwright and see the languages on a little widget to your right. It takes some getting used to, but the reader is basic and comfortable. Over time, Madan sees the reader becoming more sophisticated, with adjustable font sizes, eventually “throwing up recommendations the way Netflix does”.
Madan also claims that there has been no intervention by the team, and plays are uploaded as sent by the playwrights. There are certain features that have made the experience of reading interesting. Take, for instance, Butter And Mashed Bananas by Ajay Krishnan, which not only has an introduction to the play and playwright but also archival information on when and where it was performed, complete with pictures. The descriptor also mentions the duration of the play and the number of characters, which makes it handy for someone looking to perform it.
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“We make sure you can’t copy or download plays, but we can’t prevent reproduction through other means. We leave it to the playwrights to decide if they are comfortable with this. If they are not, they can publish excerpts,” says Madan.
What’s in it for the playwrights, one wonders? “The state of publishing for theatre in India is abysmal and reprints are rarer. This way the plays reach a larger audience,” explains Madan.
TDL is also looking at commissioning select translations of plays into English and Hindi for wider reach and toying with the idea of a pay-per-view model to monetise the platform and enable payments to contributors. Does the library then turn publisher? Madan is quick to say, “We are not agents, at least not yet.”
Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based writer.